All that (big) baggage

I’m a bit of a bag-boy. Most of us are. One of my three impossible quests for photographers is this: the perfect bag. I’ll write something profound about the other two (if I can remember what they are) later on.

And a warning: if you’re not a photographer, you’re not going to enjoy this post. Not at all… Really. You have been warned.

Sitting in the back room of my cellar/office is a big Billingham (445), small Billingham (335), something black and blue by Crumpler (with a fancy name, but it doesn’t stand up when you put it down – d’oh), and until recently a Domke F1X. None of those is actually used (though they have been). I work out of a lovely, battered and tired old Domke F2, which has been my main UK bag of choice for the last ten years. But it has some major disadvantages, of which more later.


Bags on a table

counter clockwise from front left: Lumedyne ring flash (stored in Peli case, centre), Nikon SB800 with Honl Snoot, my cherished Domke F2, couple of Calumet pole bags for light stands and backdrop kit, Lightware bag containing Lumedyne twin 400 heads and batteries/battery packs, trolley in background, lit by Lumedyne Signature head in a large softbox, shot yesterday at Sheffield Hallam University prior to portrait session – and there’s more stuff in the car (Bowens twin head kit & larger softbox, small Peli with prime lenses/spare body, Stobist kit)


When I get on a plane, after years of shifting around between bags, I’ve finally settled on a Think Tank Airport Ultralight, for getting all my stuff on-board without too many questions. I’ve got the earlier model, which has a very vulnerable laptop pocket if you’re walking through a tube station, so I’ve jury-rigged a strap to hold onto the laptop. The new model has a clip-down cover, so they’ve seen the problem and sorted it. However, I hate working out of backpacks, as you have to stop and unload the thing onto the ground to change a lens, so once I arrive somewhere, I re-pack into a Newswear chestvest system, and a small Domke (D3X?) for the camera & lens. I often end up wearing the Newswear over a shoulder rather than full-on, as it looks very ‘aggressive’ – it’s full-on in-your-face military style kit. Over the shoulder it’s not too great, worn properly it’s the most comfortable thing to carry a lot of gear with, and apart from the racket when you open one of the huge velcro pockets, and the way it looks, is fantastic. I’ve tried other pouch systems, but nothing else seems as predictable, easy to wear, and rugged. On this last trip in Bangladesh, it was ideal – I’d wear it in the aircraft, hop off onto a small boat and have everything securely with me, or onto the back of a motor bike with no risk of leaving my bag or any important kit behind.

For my laptop in the UK I have the Domke F803 satchel – this works really well, and is probably the one bag that I’m happy with out of all of these bags. And I don’t like carrying my laptop in the same bag as everything else, particularly in a shoulder bag – the temptation to carry more than your body can hold is nearly always too much…

As you can see, I like Domke products – I’ve owned a lot of them over the years, and they look good, hold a lot of stuff, are built beautifully, and are really great to work out of.

But (and with bags, there’s always a but, otherwise I wouldn’t have spent so much on them over the years) – my Domke F2 is really close to the end of its life. I’ve replaced the strap once, the velcro is wearing out, there are holes in the corners, and the overall look is heading through ‘cool patina’ to ‘ooh, ugly’. So it’s time. Mine is blue, and I don’t want a black, olive or sand one. Which leaves the rather beautiful (but very expensive) brown wax version. Before pressing ‘buy’ though, I’ve been doing some thinking.  This bag is basically just a little bit too small. With a D3 in one end, and the 12-24, 24-70, 70-200 and three SB-800/900 lights, it’s beyond full, and things are cracking up against each other. This has been worse since full-frame, especially the 12-24, which is very wide.

And that’s not even starting on the height – the bag lists at around 22cm, but the 70-200 without hood is 25 cm – that feels like a lot of bending out of shape. To be fair, that’s always been the case, but it seems time to think about it…

I don’t like Lowepro – sorry, can’t be helped, but I’ve never got on with any of their products, so I’m not going there. The bigger Domke [F1X] is too big, and doesn’t hold together properly (and the grab handle is pretty rubbish – I’ve picked up the bag by the handle with the top open and tipped the whole bag onto the floor – not great).

So what about the other contenders? Kata used to just make video bags, but now make camera bags too, and they’ve got some nice touches. Their PR-460 bag is pretty close in size to the Domke F2, but with bright yellow insides (to find things) and with a nice zip-opening in the top, so you can just dip in and grab a lens without opening up the whole thing. It’s a bit longer, so more breathing space, but probably more heavily padded, which I’m not so bothered about.


Image from Warehouse Express :: Kata PR-460



And back to ThinkTank – the build quality of my back pack from them is stunning – great zips (not a phrase you often hear…), light but strong, enough padding but not too much, just very well thought through. And they’ve just announced a huge new bag, the Urban Disguise 70, which is supposed to not look like a photo bag (well, the D3 and 70-200 round my neck might be a giveaway instead?). It’s even longer than the Kata, almost 1/3 as long and deep again as the Domke. Which in turn worries me – seems just too big possibly. And I’m not a great fan of the ‘fixed’ ballistic nylon of a lot of these bags – I’ve grown to love the feel of canvas, the way it all moulds to your body.


Think Tank Urban Disguise 70 :: Image from Think Tank


Which made me go away, and root around in the back room, and pull out the biggest bag I currently own, an original Billingham 445. It’s slightly longer and shorter than the ThinkTank. It’s canvas, which I like. It’s here, which is good (and it’s already paid for…). I’m not sure whether it’ll be comfortable to carry around for long, as I remember it always pulling off my body a touch. But I’ll try it – everything’s loaded into it now (last used in 2004 according to the commission sheet I found in the back pocket – I used it for Medium Format stuff, back when people still paid something for that…), and I’ll use it for a few days, and see what happens.


Image from Warehouse Express :: Billingham 445


Anyone using the Think Tank Urban Disguise 70, or the Kata bag, do let me know…

Not quite a bag review, but a thought in progress. Whatever I end up doing, I’ll probably use it as an excuse to post again.  It may all come back to an F2 after all. They are just very nice to work out of…

And if you’re a non-photographer, what are you doing reading this far? Really. It’s bad enough for those of us who can’t help buying the stuff..